Mar. 31—It's been just a little over three years since Odessa Municipal Court Judge Carlos Rodriguez and Director of Municipal Court Kimberly Jozwiak came onboard and discovered a bit of a mess.
Not only did they discover a 150,000-case backlog, they also learned warrants weren't being issued when people failed to show up to court.
Both issues are now being addressed, Jozwiak said.
Odessa Municipal Court handles all cases filed by the Odessa Police Department, UTPB police, Odessa College police, Medical Center Hospital District, Odessa code enforcement and animal control officers and Ector County Independent School District police.
What sorts of cases do they deal with? Public intoxication, disorderly conduct, minor in possession of alcohol, thefts under $100, building code violations, animal code violations, speeding, red light tickets, health code violations and truancy.
Jozwiak said it turns out many, many of the backlogged cases go back decades.
Rodriguez, Associate Judge Keith Kidd, court staff and city prosecutors have been going through all of the cases to determine if they can still be prosecuted or if a collection agency might be able to collect outstanding fines and fees.
So far, 53,000 cases have been cleared off their docket. Many of them have been deemed "uncollectable," she said.
"Uncollectable is when a case is 15 years or older, without any activity that's happened, the individual's never shown up, they've not made their payment, they've not sent in their documentation to get their case dismissed. Something stopped 15 years back," Jozwiak said. "We have cases when I got here from 1980. That's 40 years of cases in the municipal court. That's not usual."
To prevent any future backlogs and to ensure justice is being carried out, Jozwiak said Rodriguez and Kidd have also begun to issue failure to appear in court warrants.
Up until they came aboard, warrants were not being issued "to any degree that I can determine," Jozwiak said.
"You can't force someone to come into the court. So we'll get the cases filed and if they come in great. If they don't, there needs to be some kind of accountability. We now have that accountability part," Jozwiak said.
In addition, Jozwiak has created a "non-resident violator compact" with 43 states so that when drivers from those states get into trouble locally and don't take care of them, their driver's licenses will be suspended back home. The only states not currently participating are Alaska, California, Michigan, Montana, Oregon and Wisconsin.
Jozwiak is also working to clear up a small backlog of cases that built up between March 2020 and April 2022 due to COVID-19. There were some people who just didn't have the ability to participate in Zoom proceedings because they didn't have access to the internet or the ability to participate remotely, she said. As a result, she's rescheduling in-person hearings.
Jozwiak also shared some more recent case numbers.
According to her, there were 65,722 cases filed in Odessa Municipal Court from Jan. 1, 2020 through Dec. 31, 2022.
"Of that number, 26,238 cases are still active, meaning they are currently completing their sentencing requirements, or, are scheduled to appear on a future date. Additionally, for the same time period, we have 5,817 outstanding warrants. This means, due to our case management since the beginning of 2020, we are not leaving any cases behind to become a backlog. They will either have a final disposition, or will become 'inactive' because they become warrant cases," Jozwiak said.
There are just under 500 juvenile drivers license suspension cases that are considered "inactive," Jozwiak said.
As far as jury trials, Jozwiak admits they've not had any for a couple of years, but there are two things about that she'd like to point out.
First, municipal court has only seldomly held jury trials because most defendants secure plea agreements from prosecutors, Jozwiak said. Secondly, bailiffs must be present at jury trials and they've not been able to hire anyone.
They've had more than 30 applicants go through a lengthy criminal background check only to take other jobs before the check is completed or they've failed the background check completely, Jozwiak said.
"We're working towards getting bailiffs, but we don't have one right now and that is absolutely required for the safety of the judge, those citizens and prosecutors, defendants, everyone," Jozwiak said.
Fortunately, most defendants awaiting trial are not accused of crimes, she said.
"It's primarily traffic. I see a lot of people with a CDL driver's license that request a jury trial because they only have two options, guilty or no contest and you pay with a conviction or not guilty and you're acquitted and it doesn't go on their driving record, which affects their CDL driver's license," Jozwiak said.
Jozwiak said the city attorney's office does an "amazing" job when it comes to crafting plea agreements.
"Very seldom do we have someone plead not guilty and want to go to jury trial. They also have the option to go into a bench trial and both our judges are completely caught up with all of our bench trials. Those are no problem. It's the jury trial where we need the bailiff that can actually move the jury in and out of the courtroom into the jury deliberation room that's the issue," Jozwiak said.
Prior to coming to Odessa, Jozwiak has served as a judge or justice of the peace in Washington County, Brenham and Williamson County. She's also been a court administrator in Bellmead, Corpus Christi, Allen and Fate.
"I'm very process geared. There's steps to follow, there's rules, there's regulations, policies, procedures," Jozwiak said.
The City of Waco hired her to create and implement an organizational chart and policies and procedures, she said.
She had bigger issues in Corpus Christi.
"They had a huge problem with corruption. Very clear. They fired the top four people in the court for corruption. A couple of them were indicted. They brought me in to clean that up, to finish cleaning that up," Jozwiak said.
She's had a pleasant experience working in Odessa, she said.
"I didn't come here to fix a court. I came here because I wanted to be in West Texas. I went to Texas Tech. I was born up close to Lubbock," Jozwiak said.
Arriving and finding a couple of issues that needed to be addressed was sheer happenstance, she said.
"Judge Rodriguez was right there with me, which is amazing. We actually have a really good team kind of feel here. We're kind of on that same wavelength. His ethics are above board and so I don't have any problem going to him saying, 'I found a problem and I want to fix it. What do you think?' He has never said, 'No, let's let that go.' It's 'We're going to fix it,'" Jozwiak said.
Jozwiak has also uncovered an issue on the statewide level.
The Texas Office of Court Administration installed new software about three years ago. One of the reports it generates has led people to wrongly jump to conclusions about the number of guilty pleas being entered in Odessa and at least a dozen other cities, Jozwiak said.
Instead of capturing the statistics in one place on the report, they are captured in at least three other areas, she said. She and several other court administrators are working with the software vendor to correct that.
"I did not want there to be any confusion that our judges are not working. They are definitely working," Jozwiak said.
Although statistics obtained from the Texas Office of Court Administration indicate an overall decline in nearly all types of cases filed since 2019, Jozwiak said the court has no control over that. Law enforcement agencies' priorities often shift and staffing levels also have an impact on the number of cases being filed, she said.
Although she doesn't spend any time on Facebook, Jozwiak is aware some disparaging things have been said about her court.
They are unfounded, she said.
"I absolutely want to correct them because it's giving a false narrative and that's something we don't want," Jozwiak said.
She would have been the first person to blow the whistle if she'd found evidence of corruption, she said.
"There were many things that need to be corrected and we are in the process of doing that. It's been easy because we've started with a fresh point, with a new judge, with me coming here at about the same time, moving forward, new standing orders, new procedures, new policies, new staff."
If anyone has any questions, they should feel free to approach her, she said.
"We are very blessed to have two judges that are as focused and thorough and ethical as they are. That's not always the case. Over the years I've worked with 20 judges, as a director or administrator. I've had some excellent judges. I've had some that are mediocre and I've had some that I kind of wondered about."
Back in January, the Odessa City Council met in executive session to discuss "opening the position of municipal court presiding judge and to begin accepting applications for the position." Several attorneys expressed their support for Rodriguez and the matter was tabled.